“I’ll bet your mom visits a lot, living so close,” My friend’s mother says. In for a week from across the county, she doted on her daughter with kindness, good sense, and superior curtain-cleaning skills.
“Visits? Not so much,” I answer in sing-song.
The next day a jar of homemade strawberry jam appeared on my front steps with a label that read “for Sandra from Lillian.” I hardly knew Lillian. I’m not sure if I knew her name before I saw it written there. But as I stood holding the jar on my front porch, I felt the heavy glass, like possibility. I fingered the decorative rows of ripples and tapped the round, silver lid. When I was sure no one was looking, I rubbed that jar like a cool hand across my cheek.
I stored the jam, my ruby red secret, in the back of the fridge, meting out careful spoonfuls on my morning toast, savoring it as the delicacy it was. It tasted like someone’s home. It tasted sweet, like fresh berries, only better. It tasted like mothering.
I am a motherless mother. As far as I can tell, there are many ways to earn this scourge of sadness, but it’s death or emotional desertion that first come to mind.
My friend Thea, for example. We were on the playground a few years back in separate hormonal hazes, making the requisite small talk. Pushing our babies in black vinyl baby swings, we were literally trying to push the long day away. Thea didn’t look at me when she said, almost casually, that just two years ago she still wasn’t sure about having children, but her mother had told her she’d have a little girl someday. “I wish she lived long enough to know she was right.” Thea’s voice dropped to a whisper. I looked over and saw her face tighten. “My mother liked being right.”
Or my friend Kathleen, whom I held as her heart burst like a rain cloud pouring down sorrow for her mother who died before her daughter was born.
I think of Tennyson’s Tis better to have loved and lost. And, goddammit, I wish like Kathleen that I had a mother to love before I lose her forever. I want my daughter to have a grandmother who thinks that little girl birthday parties should be frothy pink and utterly un-missable. I want a mother who’ll play penny ante with my son, the way my granny did until we both laughed so hard we peed our pants and had to flip the chair cushions before anyone saw.
My mother isn’t dead. But she is the type of mother who fails you for much of your life and then goes on to fail your children. It hurts every day that she is around with her arm held up like a brace against yearning. It hurts like a wake that won’t end. And then a jar of strawberry jam appears on the doorstep.
I want to explain my mother. I myself want to know the truth of her, but it feels like groping for my glasses in a pitch-black room.
I try to get oriented with the touchstones of my childhood. Nearly everyday she battered me in some kind of depressive rage. She hit me more for crying. She called me a brat. As a girl, I would lock myself in my rainbow-colored room, throw myself on the bedspread she forbade me from sitting on, and smash together the delicate knickknacks that lined my bookshelves. Over the years, I sacrificed an entire collection of glass frogs to the purging of my hurt, though more than once I stood with a warty ceramic shard against my wrist and prayed for courage one way or the other.
I feel like I hold a few disparate clues to my mother. The first came many Christmases ago, in a boozy moment of connection, when she told me she didn’t want to get married, but my father did. Yet when he died 20 years back, I never felt her liberation. The other clue: one-hundred-plus pairs of unworn white sweat pants stuffed into cabinets around her bedroom. When I add that to her Lady MacBeth imitation when a spot gets on the rug, her ballistic fury over spilled milk and discarding of everything old, including my father’s war diaries and my beloved teddy, I make my armchair diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. So what does that mean? Love and emotions are too messy for her to control, so she simply doesn’t deal in them? Maybe that’s my longed-for explanation, but I’m entitled to despise its simplicty.
In seeking an explanation for her, I come up empty. She is not an abuse victim or an alcoholic. She is not, as I used to wish, a genius poet driven mad by suburban constraints. She is a skinny, pleasant church worker who constantly brags on the grandchildren she will never come to see.
At some point I started noticing the Lillians. They aren’t all mothers, I imagine, but, in small ways, they mother. The woman in the grocery store who presses strong, old fingers with crepey skin into my arm and says, “Your little girl there. She’s a gift from God.” Or the Indonesian woman at the deli who comes around the counter to hand my son a thick slice of turkey pastrami. “Your favorite, honey,” she says in a heavy, cheerful accent. I’ll include the walker with the pastel jogging suits that joins our world almost daily with a smile and a few warm words as she passes our yard. And there’s the frail librarian who has a tidy stack of ballet books set aside for my daughter because she says, “We both love the ballet.”
When friends who know her ask How did you survive her?, I tell them I had Florence growing up. She was an older woman, a mother of two grown boys, who lived two doors down from us. If thoughtful attention can save a lonely girl, that’s what Florence did for me. Every Saturday we would sit together at her kitchen table and work out the crossword puzzle in the newspaper. She would fix me a cup of milky coffee and listen to all the pressing silliness that a young girl’s world turns on. She loved my knock-knock jokes. She said I was smart. She never sent me away.
On Mother’s Day, my mother and I exchange carefully selected cards with a few predictable words. Hers comes with a 20-dollar bill and a note that says buy something for the kids. I pocket the cash, treat it as compensation for the science experiment of abuse that was my childhood. A while back, battle weary and broken, I had to give up the fight to have her. There’s a tiny place in the corner of my soul that still hopes, and while hope is fine, it’s also pretty damn draining.
And so I find a different place to put my love, love that I have only because someone, some mother or not, has given to me. I write to Lillian, my most favorite pen pal ever, and thank her for the latest jar of strawberry jam that she now sends regularly along with newsy letters from Oregon. A little shy, I tell the librarian that my daughter and I would love to take her to the ballet one Saturday afternoon and her face actually changes shape when she smiles so large. I learn the name of the Indonesian woman at the deli: Halima. She tells me she has a daughter who lives with her sister and mom in Jakarta. She hasn’t seen her in years because she needs a Green Card to bring her over. “I talk to her every day, but I’m so afraid she thinks I forget her.” She reaches easily for a framed photo and passes it across the counter. “I just want to make a better life for her.” Then she cries so shamelessly that I am embarrassed.
When I return the photo, I hold Halima’s fingers for a few seconds and I tell her what I know is true. “You’re daughter is beautiful,” I say, “And she’s lucky to have you.